Investigating forms of presentation of the Artist’ Book.

The book on the table. /// The closed archives. /// The book in a box. /// The open archives. ///
The book on the shelves. /// The book underfoot. /// The book on the ground.
/// The book in an intimate space. /// The book as installation. /// The book in a working space. ///
The book as an object to walk around. /// The book as a concept for a space.

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participant: Seet van Hout [# 05]


Seet van HoutSeet van HoutSeet van Hout

Practicing Memory

It seems so logical to imagine our memory as an attick room in which several memories are stored or hidden and forgotten and from where we can also bring them back into the mind, with or without our free will. Still the memory works differently. Memories don’t appear out of a past in stock, but still will be constructed and reconstructed in the present. The remembering is something we do. Anne Rigney thus described the memory in terms of a ‘working memory’. It exists of a still new performed selection, reassemblance and transformation of forms of memory. The remembering in this case is not a passive occasion but, as she writes, ‘an activity, a performance, taking place in the here and now of those doing the recalling’.1

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These words can also be adopted as a telling description of Seet van Hout’s approach to her work. This work constantly revolves around all possible aspects of memory – whatever form it is portrayed in: textile works, ceramics, paintings, drawings and artist’s books. In each of these different media, memory is repeatedly presented as a work in progress.

Let me use an example to illustrate my point. In the series of embroidered illustrations presented here under the title Memory Lace, the artist revisits images that over the years have become part of her personal repertoire. They are derived from illustrations found in an extremely wide selection of books. Still, a number of images resurface time and time again. One such recurring theme is the image of a peculiar plant, the Mandragora officinarum (mandrake), a multi-forked root that penetrates deep into the soil and which briefly sports a rosette of leaves in springtime. A quick search for more information on the mandrake learns that for centuries, the plant was used as a narcotic or hallucinogenic and that it was said to have magical powers. It was even rumored that the plant only grew on former gallows sites and that it was nurtured by the secretions of the hanged corpses. People found that the root’s bifurcations resembled a human figure, and it was often carved into shape to make it look even more the part. In old pictures, the mandrake is transformed into an androgynous figure – half man, half plant. It is this image that caught the artist’s eye, because it fits in with a series of pictures that takes the depiction of blood circulations and nervous systems as its connecting theme. In this series, the root manikin appears next to images of brains and other pictures taken from works of biology – not because these figures resemble one another, but because there is a transfer of aspects that they have started to share in some way or other. In this process, images of varying origin are brought in line with each other, because the artist experiences an interrelationship between them. But this close ordering of basically disparate images is effected via ‘an activity, a performance, taking place in the here and now’.

In this activity, Van Hout literally and figuratively connects a wide range of threads. Indeed, there is a strong analogy with the idea of the working memory. Whether the medium is painting (more a question of pouring paint and allowing it to flow than brushwork, incidentally), embroidery or French knitting, the work develops over time out of numerous minor movements, which only combined lead to a tangible result. As is the case with the activity of remembering, fragments join together to ultimately form a pattern. This also applies to how images are selected and how they are combined to form a seemingly coherent whole. On the one hand, chance plays an important role in this process (Van Hout likes to use the term serendipity in this context, which refers to finding something one wasn’t looking for), but on the other, the discoveries that present themselves also beg to be ordered in a system that at least offers the suggestion of a certain coherence. The disparate, embroidered illustrations of Memory Lace have been collected, grouped and processed into a virtually unfathomable system of interrelationships, which the artist has harnessed by placing them in a grid. Each of the figures can ultimately be fitted into a framework. Such a pattern , however, is anything but stable, a fact of which the artist is only too aware. Instability is even purposively sought at the level of the individual figures, and it is presented to us very directly. While Van Hout has neatly embroidered the images on pieces of canvas that have been prepared with glue, we are shown the other side, with threads that are still loose and occasionally run through each other in a crazy jumble, and with imperfections that are determined by chance – as if she has not really mastered the art of embroidery and something is constantly escaping her control. What we are left to look at, in other words, is not what Van Hout has sought, but what she has found – something that has turned out different to what she expected.

A similar procedure of order and accident can be found in the large-scale work Melancholy Girls, a gigantic book with pages that were produced using a wide range of techniques and materials. If these pages are turned over, the back side reveals surprisingly different images that are nevertheless the reciprocal product of the front of the page. The work Art of Memory, which consists of texts embroidered onto strips of cotton, involves a variation on this procedure. Once again, the texts were collected from a wide range of sources – poems, scientific publications, self-help books, publications on alchemy and so on – but in some way or other, they all relate to memory. The embroidery, and the way in which coincidence determines which side is placed to the front or the rear, make the texts partially illegible. But they have been brought together to form a single visual entity nevertheless, as if the artist is concerned with offering us an intelligible whole. How these strips of texts are presented differs from presentation to presentation, however: one time, they’re mounted in a neat pattern on a wall, before suddenly crashing down like a waterfall; the next, they form an enormous umbrella, with the strips dripping down like trickles of rain. The art of Seet van Hout does not lend itself to fixed interpretations. It’s up to us to piece together the fragments into new, but always temporary, constantly updated interrelationships – as if these works repeatedly enable us to practice memory.

Wouter Weijers


1 (Anne Rigney, Plenitude, Security and the Circulation of Cultural Memory’, Journal of European Studies, 35 (1), 2005, pp. 11-28, quotation p. 10.)

(translated from the dutch by Willem Kramer)